Puella Magi Madoka Magica: A Modest Write up

If you’re reading this, congratulations; you’ve come to my first ever blog post. I’m actually putting the carriage in front of the horse on this one since I’m discussing some of my personal interpretations of one of my personal top favourite anime before writing an introduction or prologue or whatever the fuck people normally do, but this is my blog post, so I will do whatever I want with it.

With that, this post is a pretty basic analysis of Puella Magi Madoka Magica, as mentioned, one of my top favourite anime. The original intent of this particular piece was meant as a rebuttal to people who say that this series lacks good characterisation; which I’ve encountered more often than one would believe; so this write up has been handy.

Firstly, as mentioned I hold Puella Magi Madoka Magica to a very high regard, it’s well paced, it’s thematically and narratively consistent, it has interesting characters, a dynamic and captivating aesthetic that contributes just as much to the narrative and themes and the characters do and it can be enjoyed on various levels.  These are attributes that are found in most of my favourite anime series; at least as far as I’ve seen.

At a mere twelve episodes, Puella Magi Madoka Magica covers more ground than in numerous other shows I have seen that have over a hundred episodes; and still lack a conclusion of any kind. With this limited time frame, what we have with Madoka Magica is a more condensed story. Despite the fact that it’s out of necessity, what I find remarkable and considerably impressive is how the characters are generally well fleshed out and developed while also serving a functional role to the narrative goals of the story.

Essentially, Puella Magi Madoka Magica goes the economy route by squeezing as much mileage as possible out of every frame; from the perspective of cinematography, everything from shadow puppetry to keen color use with wide background shots are utilized; every scene is populated with something of great narrative value.

This is where I want to share a few of my personal interpretations, particularly some of the character aspects, and dabble a little on backgrounds and settings; I do apologize for the length, however; if you decide to read it, I hope that you find it enjoyable; and understand, even with the length that it is, I’m not covering everything I want to here; there are a lot of intricate details in this particular show.

With that, there are three major motifs/themes I will bring up throughout this write up.

The first can be summed up with a quote from The Dark Knight; “You either die the hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”

The second one is the chess motif; note how often checkerboard floors come up in this series, then think about the characters and apply the two as complimentary motifs.

The third are the colors and what they represent to the characters, visual motifs and tone shifts.

“If you’re not 100% sure why you’re doing it, you’ll most definitely regret it later.” – Mami

First we have Mami, poor Mami, lonely Mami. While her character arc is the only one I can really criticise since her developmental change does feel somewhat abrupt and it would’ve hurt to have a little extra time; it was narratively established quite well nonetheless considering the little screen time she got as a character. In her arc we found out her reasons for becoming a magical girl, that while she’s confident and seems very happy, that she’s quite lonely due to her lifestyle and is aware of the price she’s paid for her abilities. She’s very noble, has a sense of justice and is usually concerned for those around her; she becomes the idol that Sayaka wants to emulate; but we’ll talk about her later. This is where her magical girl form has a bit of an elegant “western” sheriff motif to represent that nobility, selflessness and justice.

A lot of her fleshing out and development is not spoon fed to the viewer but rather presented in an implicit fashion. We see that she lives in an apartment alone, the only company and council she has access to is Kyubey (which would suck). Her change occurs when she learns Madoka will join her in her struggles; she receives assurance that someone will be there alongside, that she no longer has to endure loneliness; of course, those who have seen Madoka Magica know that it all comes to a sudden end.

Which brings me to Mami’s role and function in the story; while her character is pretty well crafted in the allotted time, she does serve the purpose of exposition when she takes Madoka and Sayaka under her wing and “shows them the ropes.” It’s in these scenes that Mami is not just addressing Madoka and Sayaka, but the audience as well; this is something that Kyubey does as well throughout the series along with the scenes with Mami by further elaborating her points. The first narrative function of Mami is there to lay out the “rules” of the story for the audience while explaining them to the new recruits.

The second is to show the true price young girls pay when making a contract with Kyubey; the isolation and loneliness they endure under such circumstances. This toll is presented in conjunction with the fact that what magical girls do is dangerous and that the life they choose to live doesn’t enable the luxury of friends, or a significant other. This is your basic Spiderman premise of making lifestyle sacrifices and the old saying of “with great power, comes great responsibility.”

This brings us to the third narrative function Mami plays; that being a magical girl is dangerous. While many contend that her death scene is for mere “shock value” I respectfully disagree; it’s a wakeup call to the viewer to illustrate that the danger is truly real and threatening with what these characters have gotten themselves involved in. This eventually leads Mami to die a hero.

The red sky and shadowy industrial buildings in the background of this frame illustrates that impending doom awaits Mami.

The chess motif for Mami is the Bishop, a piece that moves in a diagonal pattern across the chess board similar to Mami’s long range attack with her guns; even Mami’s silhouette in her Magical Girl form looks similar to that of a Bishop.

Her color is yellow, which in context of her character signifies joy, happiness, optimism, idealism, imagination, hope, sunshine, summer, philosophy, jealousy, hazard and friendship.

“I’m so stupid! How could I say those things? I’m hopelessly stupid!” – Sayaka

Water up front; take it with the floods.

Next up, we have Sayaka the stubborn. Since her story arc is one of downfall and tragedy, her tragic flaw is that she’s quite stubborn. Combine that with her naïve idealism and these are the primary factors which ultimately lead her to her demise; however, I am getting way ahead of myself. Sayaka, Madoka’s best friend is portrayed as impulsive and quite headstrong(forte hair clips – get it?); she makes a decision and goes full out, however; she doesn’t think things through as much as she should, she has a sense of justice and idealism which is what gives her magical girl form a knight motif with sword and cape. Combined with her impulsive and stubborn attitude, Sayaka’s hopeless infatuation with a boy serves as the primary motivator for her wish which could be questioned as; did she do it selflessly? Or did she do it to win his affections? Does she expect gratitude from this boy? Even if he does recognize the sacrifice, can Sayaka reciprocate such feelings with the state she ends up in? As a character, she is one of the more fascinating of the cast, but that possibly might be the result of her outcome in the story.

Sayaka in the brilliant blue; this visual motif comes up frequently; a signifier for an eventual outcome.

This is where her narrative function comes into play; her story arc has an added interest to convey to the viewer what happens when a magical girl succumbs to despair and how witches come into being. What I find interesting about this character arc are the factors that cause her to fall into despair; learning the truth that magical girls are essentially vessels without souls and their true form is reduced to a mere gem stone, her strong idealism and stubbornness, or perhaps she feels guilt for her wish because of her own selfish desires to be entitled the boy she likes for helping him thus strengthening her resolve and idealistic sense of justice out of an obligation to rectify that guilt.

Actually, it’s clearly apparent that she initially made her wish out of her own selfish desires to win the affection of the boy she likes; this is one part of how she fell into despair. The other part is that even if she wanted to attempt a relationship with him, she’s no longer human and she has taken on an enormous responsibility. With all her good intentions, her wish doesn’t bring her the happiness she wanted. Of course at the very end of the series, in her development as a character, she doesn’t regret it, because she truly understands what it means to do something selfless; she does become a responsible adult.

The mermaid conveys powerful imagery relevant to Sayaka.

As an aside, it has been said that Sayaka’s story arc is virtually identical to the Little Mermaid, everything from water bubbles in her transformation, to the rain pouring down prior to her transition to a witch. Even the imagery of how she looks as though she’s engulfed in the crushing depths of the underwater abyss when she transforms to a witch, then her witch form has a mermaid tail. Sayaka lives long enough to become the villain.

Sayaka’s appearance becomes distorted in the water.

Sayaka is the Knight wielding a sword, and the motif she has and her sense of justice and gallantry; the piece in chess that moves/jumps in an “L” shape on the board, this I noticed with Sayaka’s fighting style the way she leaps and jumps around while in combat.

Sayaka’s color is blue which in the context of her character means; trust, truth, confidence, conservatism, security, cleanliness, order, loyalty, sky, water (ah ha, aquatic mermaid), melancholy and depression.

“Miracles aren’t free you know. If you wish for something good to happen a whole lot of bad stuff is going to happen too. I guess that’s how the world stays in balance, good bad, everything zeros out.” – Kyoko

Kyoko has a short arc, and just a personal rant about her; people are always saying that her character development is somewhat clumsy, even the word contrived comes up. I couldn’t disagree with this more as I have recently viewed Puella Magi Madoka Movies One and Two, and with Kyoko; I think her arc, while short, is also rich which means it’s one of the most condensed of the characters. People often confuse condensed with lack of; and this is a big mistake. Most of Kyoko’s early development is implicit and, very subtle; blink and you miss it. Another aspect to remember is that Kyoko is more of a supporting character with her arc being subordinated to Sayaka’s story arc.

What of Kyoko’s character? She is well fleshed out and developed, possibly one of the best, and most thorough back stories of the series not only allowing the viewer to understand Kyoko, but also outlining that an inevitable curse of misfortune and despair is equal to the wish that brings hope and prosperity. I loved hearing her story about how she became a magical girl told with puppets, and about her past along with the Christian allegory and imagery of the apples (fruit of knowledge) and the church she hides out in. From her actions and behaviours it’s implied that she doesn’t really seem to care about anything, or anyone else but herself and the reasoning for it is well established in her backstory. She has allowed her experiences to dictate her identity and as a result has become jaded and cynical. She has become similar to Kyubey in her outlook being one of utilitarianism as illustrated by her actions; allowing a handful of people to die to fuel a greater cause; her cause, her livelihood.

Fruit of knowledge?

This changes when her mentality and ideals are challenged by Sayaka, and that’s where her development begins with her anger and frustration towards Sayaka, because she learns that she just might have been going about things wrong. From there, this all occurs on a gradual basis eventually causing her to cast aside her fears and cynicism. At the end of her arc, she dies the hero redeeming herself in the process.

Although there’s plenty of Christian imagery throughout Madoka, there’s an abundance of it with Kyoko’s arc.

Her narrative function is that she’s a corrupted magical girl who has abandoned serving others but hasn’t given into despair. She is a survivalist; she doesn’t anything she can to ensure she continues on living, usually stealing food for example, or waiting for a witch to mature at the expense of some innocent human beings; one could say she’s something of an anti-hero. Prior to her dynamic change in her story arc, her ideals and mentality is similar to that of Kyubey as I mentioned, but her actions, while like that of a magical girl, is in some ways; like that of a witch as well.

Kyoko is the rook, her lance has a long range capability as does the rook in chess being able to move in a straight pattern across the board, matching Kyoko’s personality and fighting style.

Kyoko’s color is red, which indicates in the context of her character; Excitement, energy, passion, love, desire, speed, strength, power, heat, aggression, danger, fire, blood, war, violence, and sincerity.

“Sometimes kindness can lead to even greater tragedy.” – Homura

Homura, who’s seen as the antagonist earlier on is possibly one of the most dynamic characters on Madoka Magica. While this is mostly done with fleshing out, it is her developmental phase in a past tense which is presented to the viewer later on. Of the characters on this series, she is the one who cares most deeply about Madoka; which is the catalyst for the events of the entire Madoka series including Rebellion; but we’ll not talk about that now, and just so everyone knows; yes, I like it a lot; here’s hoping another one will come out to “finish” that story.

There’s plenty of foreshadowing and subtle hints dropped with Homura when she first comes on the scene actually giving a certain intrigue to the early episodes. With her development, I’d like to think that she was able to “let go” with Madoka to allow her to do what she must, of course, that would be all fine and dandy, however; movie three right (I still like it though).

Her story arc is in a way, is an amalgamation of Mami’s, Kyoko’s and Sayaka’s story arcs; she’s a somewhat jaded and cynical survivor, she’s lonely but somewhat optimistic, she made her wish to help someone whom she deeply cares for and she could fall to the impending doom of despair at any moment. Interestingly enough, the events that set all this off is Homura’s hubris and her ambition to play god by trying to fight against fate and save her best friend.

This is what makes this series so amazing; all the individual character arcs are great standalone short stories, however; they’re also a part of a whole to provide the viewer with relevant information to set up the climax.

Homura is the Queen, in chess the Queen can go anywhere in any direction at almost any distance; this is identical to Homura’s time freezing technique that allows her to move quickly over great distances.

The color for Homura is purple, which combines the stability of blue and the energy of red. When applied to the context of her character; Royalty, nobility, spirituality, ceremony, mysterious, transformation, wisdom, enlightenment, cruelty, honour, arrogance, mourning, and temperance.

“If you ever feel lie dying for the sake of the universe, call me; I’ll be waiting.” – Kyubey

There’s Kyubey, and he can be compared to many things, a used car salesman, although, I like comparing him to a drug dealer myself:

These are accurate analogies, but I’m more inclined to think of him as an elite architect of war. He practically engineers the wars fought between magical girls and witches in order to come along and reap the benefits; he is definitively a war profiteer. I understand the whole debate about him being a villain and all, and how he does all this for the “greater good” however; one of the most common thematic threads found in Urobuchi’s works (Fate/Zero, Psycho-Pass, Gargantia, Expelled from Paradise) is the conflict of utilitarianism vs. individualism, this whole idea of sacrifice the few to save the many. Kyubey represents that utilitarianism that Urobuchi tends to rail against in his works; which is why Kyubey is of sorts a pretty nasty villain. No, he doesn’t have malicious intent, he doesn’t take joy in the downfall of the magical girls, and that’s part of the problem right there; he’s completely incapable of that or any emotion, or empathy, and that is what makes Kyubey particularly menacing as a character; cold logic, no heart or soul.

While his overall design has elements of “cute,” there is also something unsettling about his appearance, such as his demonic red eyes, or his alien like ears. This comes through especially for scenes where “shadow puppetry” come into play, casting a more demonic appearance and creating a haunting imagery which reveals Kyubey’s true nature and intentions.

Upon examining the picture we see a blue and white background, keeping in mind what these colors mean, over top of that we see what appears to be a gritty black figure. This is merely Kyubey sitting on a plant, however the actual look alludes to something more menacing with sharp edges casting a dark shadow upon the wall making Kyubey appear as a devil. Understanding that black is generally associated with power, evil, death and mystery, this image is meant to evoke feelings of tension and anxiety in the viewer.

The shadow of Kyubey shows him as much larger and far more demonic in appearance than he normally appears and conveys his cold logical mentality. Add to that the hearts on Madoka’s bed represents love, empathy and compassion as she pleads with him to understand; something he’s incapable of doing.

This is the Faustian bargain and contract allegory with how Faust, as represented by Homura on Madoka Magica, sold his soul to the devil for magic abilities to indulge in the pleasure and knowledge of the world by making a contract with Mephistopheles, who is Kyubey. Mephistopheles(Kyubey) helps Faust(Homura) seduce an innocent young girl named Gretchen, as represented by Madoka, and as a result, her life is destroyed.

Gretchen’s(Madoka) innocence saves her from damnation and is able to get into heaven. Depending on which version, Faust(Homura) is saved by god due to his constant striving along with Gretchen’s(Madoka) pleading with God. In other versions, Faust(Homura) has submitted to being fully corrupted, his sins unforgivable; eventually the devil comes to collect him and takes him to hell; Rebellion. Of course, the only real aspect here is the Faustian Bargain, the other elements of the story although present; are lightly implicit.

Aside from serving as an antagonist on Madoka Magica, he’s also a source of exposition; in many of the conversations between him and Madoka I feel as though he’s addressing the audience as well as Madoka. As is the case with Mami’s dialogue, I don’t feel that Kyubey addressing the audience is a bad thing since it doesn’t disrupt the narrative flow of the series, nor is it spoon fed and after all, the characters are still talking to each other.

Kyubey is the King on the opposing side.

His colors are red and white and when applied to his character; red; aggression, danger, fire, blood, war, violence and malice. White; is considered to be the color of perfection, purity and is associated with hospitals, doctors, and sterility; angels are usually imagined wearing white clothes. Other attributes that white lends to Kyubey is simplicity, cleanliness and precision. His white body color gives a person a false sense of security while his red eyes are a definitive warning.

With art/entertainment in general, when there’s impending danger, the color red comes up in some way, this is not just for Madoka; on both Fullmetal Alchemist series the philosopher’s stone is red in color and gives a red glow; it’s also made by killing people, then there’s the Sith lords in Star Wars with their Red lightsabers. Kyubey has red eyes and looking at how they’re used with the cinematography is brilliant; you see Kyubey talking about making Madoka a magical girl and the entire frame is his eye with her face reflected on it; meaning she’s in danger, this occurs a few times throughout the series. Then there’s when Kyubey is talking about livestock and the entire screen is red with his eyes over top creating a haunting atmosphere. This is just a few examples of how red is an indicative warning to the characters and viewer watching at home when stepping into the world of Madoka Magica; and there are many more times this visual element is utilized.

“I can change it? Even someone like me can do something to help. Can I really change how this ends?” – Madoka

Lastly Madoka, she has so much to her character; her implicit fleshing out and obvious development and her functional role in the story. Her fleshing out is achieved through her behaviours and interactions with the other characters; her mother for example tells Madoka how good a person she is, that she practically does no wrong; implicitly saying that she is pure. This not only fleshed out Madoka’s character, but also serves to set up the final outcome of the story.

When we examine how Madoka behaves during confrontative scenes we can see that she desires peace asking everyone to quit fighting. We also see that she is pretty indecisive, unable to make choices easily, which contrasts Sayaka’s impulsive behaviour. Madoka is somewhat shy, but still friendly and welcoming to everyone. Essentially all of her fleshing out portrays Madoka as a Zion of sorts which foreshadows coming events.

From a narrative function view, Madoka does fill the role of giving the viewer a first person perspective on the events or a point of view character; the reason for this, aside from serving the narrative, is to establish how Madoka makes the ultimate wish in the end. Everything Madoka sees, from Magical girls’ fighting each other, losing their lives to witches, becoming witches, hearing what Kyubey has to say and his motives allow for her to piece all this information together to come up with a solution.

We all know Madoka becomes a god; and this is narratively earned with Madoka’s fleshing out pointing towards her being a Zion and Kyubey coming right out and saying that Madoka could be a god; the series practically spells it out and lays it one the table for the viewer.

As mentioned earlier, there’s some good religious allegory thrown in throughout the series, and I’m not talking about surface level stuff like Neon Genesis (another great series) I’m talking about this allegory being well integrated into the series and contributing to the narrative in so many ways.

“And I saw the seven angels which stood before god; and to them were given seven trumpets.”

-Revelation 8:2

In Revelations, the trumpets are sounded one at a time to cue apocalyptic events, in Madoka, considering that impending doom and despair await, these trumpets have relevance. Notice how the background is a nice clean white and blue; think about what those colors represent, then the trumpets are black, which is indicative of death.

To hammer this point down there’s:

“Then the seventh angel sounded; and there were loud voices in heaven, saying, “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ; and He will reign forever and ever.”

-Revelation 8:15

Now, I’m not a religious person, I just happen to know the relevance of it to this particular series. The fact is, after Madoka becomes a god; she rewrites the fabric of reality.

Madoka is the King in chess, she’s the one Homura so loyally protects, and when Madoka makes the right wish against Kyubey; checkmate.

Madoka’s main colors are pink and white; pink symbolizes love and romance, caring, tenderness, acceptance and calm. White for her; reverence, purity, birth, simplicity, cleanliness, peace, humility, precision, innocence, youth, and is associated with safety, hospitals, and doctors.

Before I wrap this up, there are a few words I want to bring up about the backgrounds and setting as many of them compliment the series so well with their relevance to what’s occurring narratively and thematically. The first set piece that comes to mind that I want to bring up are black bars, such as gates or framing at the front of the screen creating an oppressive tone, almost as if the characters are “caged.” I’m almost inclined to say that this visual motif implies that the characters are restrained to the fates they’re given; that there’s no escaping what’s considered inevitable outcomes for them in the story.

I particularly like how this is also applied to inanimate objects throughout the series; one of my favourite examples is at the beginning in Madoka’s “dream” when Kyubey proposes making a contract with him and at that instant the frame has a busted traffic light(traffic lights come up often in this series) that has the red light violently flicker which is indicative of an inevitably regrettable and dangerous decision on Madoka’s part.

Other visual aspects I have I pulled from the Movie and TV series.

There is obviously way more about this series I’m aware of such as the significance of the empty chairs, how the color palette is very simple and background colors are not only meant to set an atmosphere for a particular scene, but to convey meaning and transition tone; particularly when it’s well integrated into the cinematography at times. I just want to bring up a few examples obviously being aware of the sky or floor colors during certain parts since it has scenes where it’s a red haze, or blue flooring or an unsettling night sky.

As for more about intimate objects, besides chairs; mirrors are also of great importance, and don’t seem to get spoken about too often, at least in my travels.

One piece of allegory worth pointing out in the context of Homura’s time travelling is near the beginning of the series when Madoka and her mother are in the bathroom and one frame has Madoka near a mirror and we see the infinite reflections of Madoka’s face in the mirror which alludes to the various world lines Madoka is a part of.

The mall serves as a great symbol representing the cycle Magical girls endure; on the surface everything looks pleasing, warm, colourful and inviting. It could even be a statement about the series itself, how most of the promotional art work makes the series look cute and innocent, however, as an aside, I knew within the first few seconds of watching this series that it was going to take a darker route. Madoka’s dream sequence was enough to convey that to me, anyways, I digress.

The area people see at the people is lovely and inviting.

Now, let’s examine some of the shots of the “back area” of the mall; what it looks like behind closed doors.

Notice the chains hanging down, the glaring red lights indicative of danger.

More red used as well as shadow and darkness; notice the flooring in some of these shots and how it’s still colourful and bright.

This here is just gritty.

Take note the gating intruding on the front of the frame, the colourful floors and where Madoka is.

A frame from a scene prior to Sayaka succumbing to despair; shadow puppetry utilized here.

Clocks come up over and over again throughout Madoka Magica; obvious reasons for those who have watched the series in its entirety.Factories and industrial builds come up a lot in Madoka Magica; these offers up a contrast to the sterile, pristine look of other surroundings and characters frequently seen as well as illustrate intense danger and tension.

Notice as they head towards the left of the screen where it’s darker indicative that the fate they hold is equally as dark.

Darkness surrounds Madoka.

Multiple shadows may possibly indicate the various timelines travelled as described earlier with the mirrors.

Homura’s shadows are somewhat covered and ambiguous.

This here is a great shot; up top we see Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam with yellow on the left and blue on the right. Junko, Madoka’s mother sits on the right where it’s blue and is feeling helpless because she’s unable to comprehend her daughter’s behaviours; essentially she’s having trouble letting go of her daughter and allowing her to grow up. This is a small character arc, but an arc nonetheless, and in the end; she is able to give Madoka her independence.

Kazuko sits on the left where it’s yellow and she lectures Junko that her daughter is growing up and that she needs to let go and recognize her independence. She is also a lot more optimistic and upbeat.

Okay; after everything I’ve talked about in this post; do I really need to describe this frame? I think you get the idea by now.

Anyways, for those who read through this; I hope you enjoyed it. I am more than aware that there is much more symbolism and imagery that greatly contribute to the narrative and themes of Madoka. There series is rich with such things, but as I mentioned before, I like shows like this because they can be enjoyed on various levels.

Whether a person simply wants a good, entertaining series they can immerse themselves in, or if they want to take the critical route examining the cinematography and writing, or someone wants to dissect and analyse the series and the deeper meanings Puella Magi Madoka Magica offers all of that.

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